Democracies may be destined to dislike one another. When people have a decisive voice in government, they are guided by self-interest, and put their short-term concerns before those of neighbors or partners. In an effort to channel this endless ebb and flow of passions, institutions provide a framework of “rights” and “wrongs,” and governments function by persuading the greatest number of voters that they are doing the “right” thing.
What happens, however, when leaders are unable or unwilling to turn the tide of nationalism, xenophobia and self-interest?
In many liberal democracies, the network of systems that maintained stability and promoted prosperity (nationally and internationally) appears to be disintegrating. When people cannot be assured of continued prosperity, when they face mass immigration and the threat of terrorism, the pull of populism — with its simple messages of who is to blame and what is to be done — is strong. When leaders cannot (or will not) persuade citizens that their long-term interest lies in dialogue and consensus with other groups and nations, politicians find it even more difficult to do the right thing; they may be carried away by the forces that divide society into ever smaller self-interested groups.
Greece has been on the front line of these changes. Here we first saw the collapse of confidence in elites and technocrats in Athens and Brussels. This was followed by the election of a formerly fringe party, Syriza, whose rejection of reform and austerity (in return for bailouts) was a dead end. The debt crisis has been compounded by the refugee crisis, provoking domestic turmoil and damaging relations with European Union partners. This has resulted in a long limbo. Recession continues and public and private debts increase, with more people falling behind in paying taxes, bank loans and social security fees. And there is further dependence on outside support.
Today the sources of that support are themselves under threat, none more so than the European Union. Economic difficulties and immigration are dividing nations, and pitting them against one another. Greece needs a reduction of its enormous public debt in order to function, but governments in creditor countries do not dare propose this to their voters. France and Italy are in favor of looser fiscal rules, which Germany refuses. Ad hoc alliances of “Northern” and “Southern” countries line up against one another. In several countries, hard-line nationalists openly challenge European Union principles of liberal democracy and solidarity — questioning even membership in the union.
On the refugee issue, Greece and Germany are on the same side, the former being the main entry point for the record 1 million refugees and migrants last year, the latter taking in the greatest number. Here, too, the European Union was split between countries trying to cope with the influx and adhering to the bloc’s principle of solidarity with those in need, and others who rejected an agreement under which member states would share the responsibility of hosting asylum seekers. These tensions, along with fear of terrorism, have resulted in fences being built and border controls returning to what had been a passport-free zone in Europe.
In July, a Pew Research Center survey in 10 European countries reflected how economic and security concerns compound each other. Among all the countries polled, 59 percent of respondents thought that refugees would increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country, and 50 percent saw refugees as a burden because they take jobs and use social benefits. In Greece, which has not suffered an attack in the current surge of Islamic-inspired terrorism, 72 percent worried about the economic burden, while 55 percent feared terrorism. In Germany, 31 percent of those surveyed worried about the economic burden, while 61 percent were concerned about increased terrorism.
Two of the European Union’s crowning achievements — monetary union and the eradication of borders — have become threats to its very existence. Britain’s vote to pull out of the union is the clearest evidence of this and a major threat in itself. The principles of solidarity among member states, and with the world’s needy, which are fundamental to the European Union’s core purpose, have been shaken. Diplomatic language was abandoned during the Greek debt crisis, and hostile outbursts have become frequent, not only in popular media but also between governments.
When battle lines over different issues are drawn across the Continent, alliances will shift continually, and consensus will become even more difficult. If no single, unifying policy can be adopted on a given issue, divisions will deepen. Then only outside intervention can break the deadlock. This is what the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan achieved after the carnage of World War II, allowing Europe’s nations to move toward democracy, open economies and, eventually, the European Union.
Today the United States is neither interested in nor capable of promoting anything equivalent to this. And Europe already has the benefits of liberal democracy and of a unification process that provided decades of peace and prosperity. Yet its nations still cannot agree on common policies that will control debt and promote growth; they are still wary of ceding enough sovereignty to solidify what is, in effect, still one of the world’s largest economies. The European Union was created to prevent a slide back into the Europe of the 1930s, when the democracies that had won World War I undermined one another in a climate of economic instability while autocratic rivals prepared for what became the greatest slaughter humanity has known.
When Chancellor Angela Merkel stands up to the German populists who fought against the bailout of Greece and are now making gains by opposing the settlement of refugees, she is keeping the flame of principle alive against the winds of expedience. “Change is not a bad thing,” she recently told her Parliament. “I am sure that if we stick to the truth, we will win back what we need — people’s trust.”
She needs that trust to be a voice of moral authority in Europe. It is crucial that she balance humanism on the refugee issue with a reassessment of her country’s priorities on economic issues, allowing closer economic union and promoting growth. Other leaders must be just as brave, working to persuade voters that the security and prosperity of each nation can be achieved only through collective action, not division.
Europe’s nations have a duty to confirm democracy’s resilience under pressure. The future of the union — the future of Europe — depends on this.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.